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Biden and Xi agree to hold virtual summit this year

US-China relations

Biden and Xi agree to hold virtual summit this year

Decision marks first sign of improving US-China relations since new administration in Washington

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in 2013. The two leaders will meet virtually after Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi reached an agreement in Zurich © Getty Images

Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have agreed to hold a virtual summit this year, in the first sign of improving relations between the countries since the US president took office.

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, and Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, reached an agreement in Zurich on Wednesday to hold a virtual summit between the leaders following their two phone calls this year.

“We do have, out of today’s meeting, an agreement in principle to hold a virtual bilateral meeting between the leaders before the end of the year,” a US official said after Sullivan and Yang met for six hours.

The official said they had a more productive exchange than in previous high-level meetings, including when they met in March in Alaska with Antony Blinken, secretary of state, and Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister.

“Today really involved a genuine back and forth, which was quite welcome — a different tone than Anchorage, a different kind of feel in the ability to go back and forth than in Anchorage,” said the official.

China called the talks “candid” and “constructive”, adding that both sides had agreed to take action to “strengthen strategic communication, properly handle differences and avoid conflict and confrontation”.

The Financial Times reported on Tuesday that Sullivan and Yang planned to discuss the possibility of a virtual summit. Biden previously suggested to his Chinese counterpart that they hold an in-person meeting, but people familiar with the call said Xi did not express a willingness to meet at that time.

Beijing has signalled that Xi, who has not left China since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, does not intend to travel overseas in the near future.

The US official dismissed suggestions that the outcome of the Zurich meeting marked a “thaw” in US-China relations, but said that it was a “substantive and constructive” step.

The official added that Sullivan had raised US concerns about a range of issues, including the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and Chinese military activity around Taiwan.

Yang rejected the criticisms and called on the US to stop interfering in China’s affairs. “The US needs to sincerely respect China’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” he said, according to a statement from the country’s foreign ministry.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have continued to mount, particularly as the Chinese air force has in recent days flown record numbers of warplanes into Taiwan’s “air defence identification zone”.

While most analysts do not view the activity as a prelude to war, it has sparked anxiety about China’s stance towards Taiwan — which it views as its sovereign territory — and about the potential for the situation to spiral into conflict.

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Taiwan’s defence minister this week said that China would be fully capable of invading the island by 2025.

The US official said that Washington viewed any activity that threatened peace across the Taiwan Strait as being of “deep concern” but suggested that the incursions of recent days did not mark a material difference.

“Our view on the recent flights . . . is that they are a continuation of a very concerning trend, and moving in a concerning direction. But I see them primarily in that context of a concerning trend line,” the official said.

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